Spamalot: Make Way for Mr. Beale! New Arthur Is King of Broadway

I have very good news. Simon Russell Beale has unexpectedly taken over the role of King Arthur in that mad pleasure of a show, Monty Python’s Spamalot, and his smashing performance is a wonder to behold. It may even be the most amazing debut in a Broadway musical I’ve ever seen.

Mr. Beale is the last person I would have expected to triumph as the horseless King of the Britons—or “Breetuns,” as they say—particularly as I last saw this renowned British classical actor playing Tom Stoppard’s logical-positivist professor in Jumpers. Yet are the two leading roles so different? Both the king and the professor make sense of absurd life in their own insanely logical way. When, for example, Mr. Beale’s King Arthur first enters pretending to be a horse while simultaneously pretending to ride one, he achieves the impossible with a dignity and command that seems perfectly normal to one and all.

The regal centaur’s faithful servant, Patsy, rides behind him, making the sound of clip-clop with two halves of a coconut. “Steady,” warns the king as they come to an imaginary ravine or small hedge. Mr. Beale does a thoughtful little leap. “And over we go!”

There’s something delirious about the very presence of Mr. Beale in Spamalot. The role of the king anchors the entire show. It’s good to be king. Tim Curry, Mr. Beale’s predecessor as King Arthur, made a splendidly grave and butch Arthur in reticent command. Mr. Beale has more of a sweet sincerity and inner delight. His eyes are literally twinkling at the sheer pleasure of being there. He underplays both high and low comedy brilliantly. He suggests light camp with a straight face. He possesses charm and a surprisingly assured singing voice. He listens onstage. He understands that redeeming British specialty and safety valve of stuffiness everywhere—the supreme art of being silly.

The man who was sitting one away from me at Spamalot was so convulsed with laughter throughout the giddy show, I thought he’d have a heart attack. But he didn’t know Mr. Beale. “Who is this guy?” he said at one point, looking quickly through his Playbill for a clue. And there wouldn’t be a clue in Mr. Beale’s joyful performance in the most insane show in memory that we have seen him of late play Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Malvolio and Iago.

England is a nation of great character actors, not romantic heroes. The character actor is Everyman and, being unsnobbish, is content to play unlikely roles. (The one unfulfilled ambition Laurence Olivier had was to play Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls). “In England, acting is a heritage passed on through the ages,” wrote Mel Gussow in a perceptive New Yorker profile of Michael Gambon. “From Burbage to Garrick, from Garrick to Kean and Macready, from them to Irving, and on to Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson—and Gambon and McKellen. As is also true of great clowns, actors learn and borrow from their predecessors, who borrowed from those who came before them.”

Mr. Beale is the heir to the generation of Michael Gambon and Ian McKellen.

Cambridge University has its own amazing theater tradition, and many of the leading lights of the London stage—including Mr. Beale—were educated there. Peter Hall came out of Cambridge. So did his successors at the National, Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn and Nicholas Hytner, as well as Sam Mendes, Emma Thompson, Simon McBurney of Theatre de Complicité, and Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod of Cheek by Jowl. The Cambridge school of directors alone virtually created modern British theatre.

The undergrad Peter Hall was in turn shaped by the Marlowe Society at Cambridge, under the direction of a legendary man, George (Dadie) Rylands. The heritage was passed on when Hall handed over the leadership of the Royal Shakespeare Company to Trevor Nunn, and then continued at the National. The Marlowe torch is still carried by the former society president, Sir Ian McKellen.

Mr. Beale is the continuation of a great tradition. “Who is this guy?” my Spamalot neighbor asked excitedly. I was tempted to tell him. But I wanted him to enjoy the show. Besides, in the beginning and the end, Mr. Beale is a terrific King Arthur, and that is all ye need to know. The Mike Nichols production remains in sparkling shape since it opened on Broadway last March. Special hurrahs for Hank Azaria and the new Lady of the Lake, Lauren Kennedy. Sublime silliness still reigns.

But what next for Simon Russell Beale? He could always take over from Ian McKellen in his annual performance as Widow Twanky in the London Christmas panto Aladdin. But perhaps Mr. Beale might want to shoot for higher things. At the very least, King Lear or Tevye the milkman.

Mr. Brantley’s Sink

Now, you know me by now. I always look on the bright side of life. Except when I’ve got a thorn in my paw. I regret to say the opening of Rabbit Hole, David Lindsay-Abaire’s new play starring Cynthia Nixon at the Biltmore, left me cold.

If we begin at the heavily symbolic end, the wan husband (John Slattery) and wan wife (Ms. Nixon) are staring bleakly out at us as the curtain descends with significant slowness. It’s a portentous final moment and dramatic cliché that we must have seen a hundred times before. Life is sad, the stage picture tells us. We could guess the questions that we’re meant to ask without having seen the play. Will the two depressed figures solve their problems? Will they stay together or will they part?

It isn’t Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s subject matter of dealing with grief that I found so dispiriting, for we are used to plays whose characters are in mourning for their lives. Nor is the company of Ms. Nixon and this ensemble the problem, though Ms. Nixon’s tranquilized, perilously underplayed portrait of suffering is uncharacteristic of her usually fine work. The essential problem is this predictable, far too overpraised play of goyishe drabness.

Mr. Lindsay-Abaire, whose refreshing Fuddy Meers and Kimberly Akimbo portrayed reality through the looking glass of displaced people and comic grotesquerie, has written a conventional drama. Rabbit Hole is a small soap opera writ large.

Its plot revolves round the death of a child who was killed in a car accident and the effect the tragic loss has on the boy’s family. Daniel Sullivan’s pacing is ponderously slow, and John Lee Beatty’s set of the family home is technologically bloated. But the atmosphere of the play itself is dead. It has no dramatic spark or vitality. Grief fills empty rooms (as Shakespeare said); it does not suck the air out of them.

The playwright has made tragedy lifeless. Grief rages and destroys and raises whirlwinds. It doesn’t bicker and whine or chat. But that is what’s happening in the name of emotional understatement and coping in Rabbit Hole.

Mighty issues—Group Therapy, God, Fate, Parallel Universes—are referred to by Mr. Lindsay-Abaire with a knowing nod to intellectual heft where none is to be found. All five of his characters are no more than sketches and symbols. Ms. Nixon’s frigid Becca is a meatless role—a thin-blooded spirit and a passive agent to suffering. She’s also a bore married to a bore. Did Mr. Slattery’s maudlin Howie ever have any juice in him?

Tyne Daly is Nat. (What names!) Ms. Daly at least brings energy to the muted proceedings, and we warm to the actress rather than the tactless mother from hell she’s playing. Nat is meant to be “a character”—as blusteringly boorish women of a certain age who suffer underneath become lovable characters in sitcoms. Nat’s token scenes only confuse the issue of whether Rabbit Hole is meant to be a comedy or a tragedy.

A tragic comedy, then. Izzy (Mary Catherine Garrison) is Becca’s sulky younger sis, who’s pregnant by some jazz musician. She doesn’t deserve a baby is the issue. And there’s the hangdog teen, Jason (John Gallagher Jr.), who ran over Becca’s child in the first place. Jason wants to make sense of it all. So does Howie’s rumored lover from group therapy, whose daughter died of leukemia. Not to mention Nat’s drug addict son, who hanged himself.

For our man at The Times to rave over Rabbit Hole is one thing. For Mr. Brantley to find himself brought to tears (again), while invoking the name of the mythic Mary Tyrone in the same breath as Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s Becca, is surely another. But for the good Mr. Brantley to announce confidently that the play “belongs squarely to what were once called kitchen sink dramas” takes the strudel. Kitchen-sink drama was the name given to the British new wave of mid-1950’s plays that ushered in the age of working-class social realism. It has absolutely nothing in common with Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s middle-class America of 2006.

True, Mr. Brantley adds, “But the sink, in this instance, has been polished to a high reflective sheen.” It’s a deep contradiction in terms. The entire purpose of kitchen-sink drama was to sweep away the polished sheen. It made war with the surface emotion of the past—and with it, the safe, emotionally repressed drawing-room dramas of Rattigan, Coward, Maugham and Mr. Lindsay-Abaire’s Rabbit Hole.